Gentle reader, if you follow the blog closely enough to be somewhat familiar with the various authors, you might know that I consider myself something of a witch. Though I have at times tried to elucidate my spiritual leanings with descriptors such as “eclectic post-Wiccan shamanic neo-Pagan, with influences from Hinduism to Hellenism”, I find “witch” rolls off the tongue a little easier. Something about the richness of the word “witch”, the dark, damp, fertile history of the word, is one of various things that first brought me to Wicca so many years ago. Though at times I waver closer to or further from the word, I find it difficult to imagine a time when I no longer have any connections whatsoever to this potent word and its associated practices. So when I first saw word of The Witch spreading around the interwebs, my interest was piqued. The Wiccan Boom the 1990s promised me never came to pass, so there’s been a dearth of witchy media since Charmed went off the air, except for the recent fiasco that was Witches of East End. This was the first time I’d seen a movie with such an explicitly witch-themed title getting press and interest since The Craft. On top of that, even Stephen King voiced his approval on Twitter! Of course I had to check it out.
And check it out I did. I was hesitant to write a post about it after my first viewing; it conjured up (pun intended) so many thoughts and feelings, I worried I wouldn’t be able to make anything resembling coherence out of the juices of my mind grapes. But after a couple of days of processing, a second viewing, and hours of bouncing ideas around with my fellow author MikelyWhiplash (including the possibility of whether or not Taylor Swift is a witch), I think I just might be ready to tackle this haunting work of cinema. Did I like it? Hard to say: it is visually a macabre pleasure to watch, and I think it’s important for bringing witches back to the popular imagination. Enter with me the world of The Witch. Verily yon wood be filled with witches, and also spoilers.
When you grow up reading a lot of genre fiction, especially young adult and high fantasy, a major turning point in your emotional growth is realizing that “the dark lord”, as you have come to know this all-too-common character archetype, doesn’t really exist. In reality, evil as an ideal is never made manifest in a single adversary whose sole objective is to destroy and corrupt the goodness in the world. Sure, there are people who are “bad” from your own perspective, and bad qualities like selfishness, prejudice, and lack of empathy are generally culturally agreed upon, but even the worst people are generally heroes in their own minds, people who have not yet been shown the error of their ways. No one sets out to be Sauron or the White Witch or Voldemort, and no matter how much power and influence bad people achieve, I know of no instance where anyone has claimed that their ultimate goal was the advancement of the cause of evil.
Most frameworks of morality grasp this concept pretty well: that good and evil are not absolutes, and that humans inherently have the capacity for both positive and negative behaviors. The major exception seems to be in certain camps of modern Christianity, which assigns a motive and influence to Satan that is very much comparable to the fictional and largely metaphorical presence of Sauron and other prototypical “dark lords”. While in Tolkien’s case, Sauron was a metaphor for industrialization, and in the case of children’s books, morality is artificially externalized and simplified for the sake of young readers, the Christian reading of Satan is—as far as many active faith communities are concerned—neither metaphorical nor exaggerated. Satan is literally a dark wizard.
Ironically, I find horror movies about possession and the devil to be one of the most pro-Catholic type of movies, even if they are a bit misguided. In the real world, many people are uncomfortable when the Pope, or any religious figure, says something about evil, or, specifically, the devil. Yet they seem relatively comfortable with the idea that if there ever is a real need for an exorcism, the Catholic Church can handle it. Many people try to make a belief in demons or the devil out to be superstitious and silly. I personally know some Catholics who find it embarrassing that the church still believes in such things. But whether or not you believe in demons and the devil, I think all people fear a loss of control and the unknown. And so the idea of a religious institution that battles these fears can be pretty appealing, even to those people who don’t believe.
As a religious person, what most aggravates me is how wrong exorcism movies tend to be in their portrayal of the battle between good and evil.
Looking back on my childhood, I can’t help but notice that there were some terrifying things in my seemingly innocent kids’ movies. And one of the most surprising and terrifying things is Satan showing up in my Disney movies!
And no, I don’t mean that Disney has some underlying satanic message or some evil satanic plot. Disney is a company founded in the Western world that for the most part has dealt with themes from Western culture, which includes Christianity. There are many instances of God showing up in Disney (but we’ll talk about those later). And of course, there are many instances where God seemingly passes judgement on villains in Disney movies and almost literally sucks them into hell.
Well, if there is a hell, there has to be a Satan, right? Disney has many devil’s bargains in their movies, such as in The Little Mermaid and The Princess and the Frog, and while it’s never really Disney characters selling their soul, the parallels are pretty clear. There are even instances where it seems that the devil or demons—something evil—is influencing the Disney villains. But there have been a couple times when the devil himself has literally shown up in Disney movies. This post was originally just going to be about instances of Satan in Disney movies, but then I started to notice something: when the devil does show, it’s always with women…
So the other day, I forced Saika to take me both to the movies and to pay for my ticket. Naturally, we went to see Rise of the Gaurdians, which was a pleasant break from the sword fight the two of us failed to properly have beforehand—more accurately, we swung wooden sticks at each other and it was very awkward—and I have to say that this movie did not reach my expectations. It’s plenty enjoyable—I’ve seen it a few times already—and it’s a good story. But it is nowhere near as epic as everyone made it out to be.
I wasn’t really sure how to title this, so let me explain what I mean. You know shows that have religious themes, and sometimes even characters who are firmly rooted in specific religious traditions, but avoid ever actually talking about that religious tradition? I can understand that writers and producers want to avoid appearing to advocate one religion or another, both because that can get, well, preachy, and it will probably lose the show viewers who don’t follow that religion. But sometimes it just gets silly. Let’s look at a couple of shows where Christianity exists, and sometimes plays a huge role, but where the J-word is never actually said.
Demonic possession. It makes up a large chunk of the horror genre, from classics like The Exorcist to B-grades like The Rite and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The idea that a spiritual being could commandeer our physical forms is both fascinating and terrifying to viewers.
Now, I’m pretty much the opposite of a horror buff, so instead of any of those movies I’m going to talk about Supernatural and Blue Exorcist, and how possession is portrayed and fought in these series.
In the land of pop culture, Satan acts as our bridge to discuss God and morality. Throughout many movies, TV shows, and books Satan questions God and the morality that God has set forth. The last post I did about Satan, I talked about Al Pacino’s closing speech in The Devil’s Advocate. While Al Pacino’s devil is clearly evil, his final speech does make the viewer question a lot about God and morality, while Satan declares himself a humanitarian for wanting humans to be able to do whatever they want. The speeches cause the viewer to question God—clearly what any Satanic figure would want—but the way the movie is written and performed never causes the audience to actually sympathize with Satan. Basically, after watching The Devil’s Advocate I wouldn’t be surprised if people could see the devil’s “point”, but still think he is entirely wrong and a bad person.
And once again it is time to talk about Supernatural!
The devil is totally evil and you should hate him! Actual religious beliefs affect how religion is portrayed in pop culture, and of course affects how religious figures are portrayed. Now, Satan may not be Jesus. He’s not a paragon of virtue that is upheld by believers (unless they are Satanists, but we aren’t talking about them), but nevertheless he is an extremely important character in Judeo-Christianity.
Because Satan is an evil character, pop culture often pits him against the noble and righteous characters. When we talk about the devil in pop culture, we are often talking about the typical villain archetype. He is evil without reason or remorse. He does everything he can to destroy our virtuous heroes. Not only does he attempt to destroy them in the typical “I’m going to kill you” way, he also attempts to destroy our heroes by tempting them to evil. By doing this the devil gains more souls for hell and turns people away from God.
A lot of people say that Nazis are the perfect villain, because everybody hates them. You will never have a theater full of people getting pissed at how Nazis are treated. Well, pencil in Satan next to Nazis. Our default setting is to hate Satan. There is nothing endearing about him. Furthermore, he has a plus side over the Nazis—he is more interesting. Remember this is a character that according to most Judeo-Christian mythology is someone who was best friends with God before rebelling against him. Again, our default is to assume God is good and awesome. God created us, gave us life, and free will, so why would someone hate him?
The Devil, Satan, the great beast, the great dragon, Christianity’s great villain has many names and has been one of the greatest characters in Western pop culture since human beings first talked about him.
Some of you may have rightly noticed that I did not discuss the devil during my apocalypse series. That’s because Satan is so much more than one little apocalypse and it would be really wrong of me to cram him into that little segment.
So for the next couple of post I wanted to discuss the various different portrayals of Satan in pop culture. How the devil went from evil beast, to misunderstood revolutionary, and finally to a complex figure that maybe says more about who we are than who the actual devil is.